Love, Honor, or Control: Domestic Violence, Trafficking, and the Question of How to Regulate the Mail-Order Bride Industry

By Lindee, Kirsten M. | Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Love, Honor, or Control: Domestic Violence, Trafficking, and the Question of How to Regulate the Mail-Order Bride Industry


Lindee, Kirsten M., Columbia Journal of Gender and Law


Total cost for services: $10,500.00 U.S. A beautiful woman to sleep with at night, kiss in the morning, and love all day long, for so little--less than an economy car. (1)

In recent years, with the development and widespread use of the Internet, the international marriage brokerage (IMB) (2) industry has grown exponentially. In 1997, the Global Survival Network reported that more than 200 IMB companies annually paired between 2,000 and 5,000 American men with foreign "mail-order brides," and in 1998, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) (3) reported that IMBs made between 4,000 and 6,000 such matches. (4) By 2004, those numbers had nearly doubled--recent studies estimate that more than 500 IMB companies annually match between 9,500 and 14,000 foreign women with American men. (5) Should this rapid growth in the "mail-order bride industry" cause concern?

Proponents of the IMB industry emphasize that it helps "American men ... find happiness through inter-cultural relationships leading to marriage." (6) But while extolling such inter-culturalism, proponents also appeal to an inherently traditional and American conception of the family. As one Houston-based IMB advertises, foreign fiancees are not tainted by the perversions that feminism has wreaked on the American family. (7) Unlike American women, who are "so belligerent, angry, selfish, and confused," these foreign women retain traditional (and somehow American) family values:

   Her life is centered around her family, her husband and children,
   [sic] (similar to American women from generations past). These
   women would rather complement her man, than compete with
   him. They offer us faithfulness, understanding, religious values,
   motherly instincts, and most importantly, beliefs. Beliefs that
   marriages are onetime and perpetual, and that a man should not
   be judged by material possessions, physical appearance, or age,
   but by his heart, mind and soul. (8)

For IMB companies and clients, therefore, the purpose of international romantic matches appears not so much as the opportunity to experience an inter-cultural relationship, but rather as the opportunity to experience a conception of marriage and gender roles that many believe has become increasingly rare post second wave feminism.

In appealing to these conceptions of marriage and gender, IMBs create and foster an image of "mail-order brides" as submissive, dependent, and deferential. At the same time, by advertising them online and in glossy catalogues, IMBs commodify these women, who can be purchased for less than the price of an economy car. (9) As Layli Miller-Muro, the executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center, has stated, "[t]his industry predominantly places women at a disadvantage where the man is the paying client and the woman advertised as a product, a commodity," thus creating a "presumption of power and a potentially very dangerous recipe for abuse." (10) Indeed, as a 1999 Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) report on the IMB industry explained:

   While no national figures exist on abuse of alien wives, there is
   every reason to believe that the incidence is higher in this
   population than for the nation as a whole. Authorities agree that
   abuse in these marriages can be expected based on the men's
   desire for a submissive wife and the women's desire for a better
   life. (11)

However, available information suggests not only that mail-order brides may become trafficking victims, forced into sex work or domestic service, but also that the IMB industry per se constitutes a form of sex trafficking. (12)

The increasing prevalence of IMBs thus raises two central concerns: IMBs potentially expose women to domestic violence and abuse without offering adequate protections or resources, and IMBs potentially facilitate international trafficking in women. In response to these growing concerns, in late July 2003, Senator Cantwell introduced the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA). …

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